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Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree vowed yesterday to forge ahead with a suit seeking reparations for survivors of the 1921 Tulsa, Okla., race riots, five days after a federal judge threw the suit out of court.
In an interview with The Crimson yesterday, Ogletree—who assembled the Tulsa plaintiffs’ star-studded legal team—predicted that the survivors would prevail at the appellate court level.
The ruling came less than two months before the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling striking down the racial segregation of schools in Brown v. Board of Education.
“The lawyers in Brown had to fight a lot of battles and suffer a lot of losses before they could win,” Ogletree said. “We’re prepared to fight equally long... to insure that the injustices that occurred in Tulsa aren’t repeated and are redressed in the courts.”
U.S. District Court Judge James O. Ellison ruled Friday that plaintiffs could not receive reparations from city and state governments because the suit came too long after the deadly riots.
“It is unbelievable and unconscionable that anyone would suggest that the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma are not guilty of dereliction of duty and complicity in the riot itself,” said John Hope Franklin, an eminent historian and a plaintiff in the case.
“If [Ellison] thinks that a technicality is more important than justice, that’s his view of the law but it’s not my view of the law,” said Franklin, who received a doctorate in history from Harvard in 1941 and an honorary degree from the University 40 years later.
According to a State of Oklahoma-sponsored commission’s 2001 report, the riots began on May 31, 1921, after a vigilante mob tried to lynch a black prisoner accused of raping a white woman. The Greenwood district—the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa—was destroyed, and as many as 300 blacks died in what Ogletree described as “one of the worst episodes of domestic terrorism in our nation’s history.”
While declaring that the riots constituted a “tragedy,” Ellison ruled that the statute of limitations on survivors’ claims has expired.
Ellison recognized that the atmosphere of racism in Oklahoma after the riots prevented plaintiffs from winning damages in the 1920s, but he said that survivors could have filed suit in the 1960s, after the Jim Crow era ended.
Ogletree characterized Ellison’s rationale as “absurd.”
“The judge on the one hand got it—there was an atmosphere immediately after the riot that would make it preposterous to assume that our clients could have filed [suit in the 1920s],” said Michele A. Roberts, an attorney at the Washington, D.C.-based firm Shea & Gardner who served on the plaintiffs’ legal team along with Ogletree and Johnnie Cochran.
“But [Ellison] forgot that the conspiracy of silence continued. It almost reads as if the judge is claiming that after the 1960s, there was virtual equality,” Roberts said.
‘NO SHOT AT JUSTICE’
Shortly after the riots, more than 100 black residents of Tulsa filed suits seeking reparations, but with the Ku Klux Klan in control of local courts, the riot survivors’ legal efforts failed, said Alfred L. Brophy, a law professor at the University of Alabama and expert witness in the case.
One of the lawyers who sued for damages in the immediate aftermath of the riots was Franklin’s father. Speaking from his Durham, N.C., home yesterday, Franklin recalled the fear he felt as a six year-old boy living in Rentiesville, Okla., 60 miles south of Tulsa, at the time of the riots.
His father, Buck Colbert Franklin, had travelled to Tulsa with the intention of moving the family to the city. Following the riots, Franklin’s father was detained for a week, and the family had no knowledge of his whereabouts. After Buck Colbert Franklin’s release, “he went back to the place where he thought he had a home only to discover that it had been flattened by looting and burning,” the 89 year-old historian said yesterday.
“If you were a black and you tried to assert your rights, you were indicted or run out of town,” said Brophy, who received a doctorate in the history of American civilization from Harvard in 2001.
As recently as the early 1970s, a white National Guard officer faced death threats when he began investigating the 1921 riots, Brophy said.
After the end of the Jim Crow era, “the courts were effectively open to black people in general, but they were not open to these riot victims,” Brophy said. “Those folks had no shot at justice.”
Only after the state-sponsored commission’s 2001 report did survivors have a realistic chance at winning reparations, he said.
Survivors approached Ogletree in 2002 after a lecture he presented at the University of Tulsa Law School and asked him to take on the case.
“Here were people in wheelchairs, with all sorts of illnesses, who are clinging to life looking for someone to defend them,” Ogletree recalled.
“Fifteen clients have already died in the one year since the lawsuit was filed. We don’t have any basis to delay the expeditious continuation of this case,” he said.
Ogletree responded to the survivors’ stories by cobbling together a dazzling array of attorneys.
“Now that I know and have met so many of the survivors and their descendants I’m even more committed to making sure that their interests are vindicated,” said Roberts, who the Washingtonian magazine named the top lawyer in the capital in April 2002.
The Tulsa legal team included attorneys on a national advocacy group called the Reparations Coordinating Committee (RCC), which Ogletree co-chairs.
Other Tulsa lawyers on the RCC include Cochran and Dennis Sweet, a Mississippi-based attorney who helped win a landmark $400 million verdict against the maker of the Fen-Phen diet pill.
And Ogletree told The Crimson in April 2002 that the group was considering filing suits against universities with historic links to slaveholders—including Harvard and Brown.
Ogletree said yesterday he was encouraged by an “extremely fruitful and productive” session in December with a Brown University commission that is probing the school’s past ties to the slave trade.
Brown University President Ruth Simmons, the first black to lead an Ivy League school, announced the formation of the commission last spring.
In a March 2002 New York Times op-ed, Ogletree alluded to the possibility of suing Harvard Law School for reparations based on the school’s past links to slaveholders
According to Ogletree, Isaac Royall, who endowed Harvard’s first law professorship, financed his gift to the school by selling slaves in Antigua.
“Institutions will either examine these matters on their own or have to respond to steps taken by others,” Ogletree said yesterday.
He said he has not raised the question of slavery reparations with University President Lawrence H. Summers. When asked if and when he would approach the administrators on the issue, Ogletree declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Brophy last night presented a proposal to the University of Alabama Faculty Senate calling on the Tuscaloosa-based institution to recognize the role slaves played in the school’s early years.
“The University is deeply implicated in the maintenance and expansion of the institution of slavery,” Brophy said.
Basil Manly, who was president of the university from 1837 to 1855, “was literally the man who swore in Jefferson Davis” as president of the Confederacy, Brophy said.
He said the university does not recognize the presence of slaves’ cabins or unmarked graves on its campus.
“The university needs a further study a la Brown of our connection to slavery and what we can do about this,” said Brophy.
Brophy said that students and faculty have been receptive to his suggestions, but he has received a hostile response from some in the community-at-large.
One e-mail to Brophy read: “Please take your fancy Harvard and Columbia degrees back to one of these institutions, where maybe someone will want to hear your complaints.”
He said other e-mails have phrased criticisms less politely.
“[Brophy] has to be extremely courageous to take on this issue in an environment where the hostility of the State of Alabama and the City of Tuscaloosa is palpable,” Ogletree said.
ON THE HOME FRONT
Ogletree spoke with The Crimson yesterday from Wayne State University in Detroit, where he addressed a symposium co-sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Brown v. Board of Education, which he chairs.
His speech in Detroit came the same day that the National Urban League released its State of Black America report, which includes a chapter by Ogletree.
“[T]he as-yet unfinished process of implementing Brown has turned out to be nearly as slow as the process of tearing down the Jim Crow system,” Ogletree wrote.
The report concluded that significant obstacles still face black Americans who attempt to purchase homes.
Fewer than 50 percent of blacks own their own homes, compared to more than 70 percent of whites. Blacks who apply for mortgages are twice as likely to be rejected as whites.
According to the report, whites on average live six years longer than blacks.
But blacks are substantially more likely to volunteer for military service, the report found.
As the Brown anniversary approaches, “it’s important that organizations like the Urban League make sure that we temper our celebration of progress with a sensible and honest reflection in the areas where we’ve had failures,” Ogletree said.
—Staff Writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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